Picture the scene. You open your Sunday newspaper to discover that a cabal of Westminster MP’s have decided that from now on the UK will be run on a Presidential system, that an interim President chosen from the “political elites” would be installed any day now but we might be able to vote on a President in 2017. After choking on your Cornflakes and passing on to the sports section you could reflect that this is pretty much what has happened to the people of Greater Manchester. The situation becomes even more democratically surreal when you consider that Mancunians were polled about having a Mayor in 2012 and said ta very much but you’re all right.
The background to this rather bizarre situation is as follows. In a moment of back of a fag packet policy panic George Osborne blew into Manchester all full of jobs, growth and “Northern Powerhouse” soon after the Scottish independence vote in November of last year and he herded together a group of local Labour Party council bigwigs to sign off on a package conjured up by their right wing think tank, ResPublica, as “Devo Manc”. We were told that Greater Manchester was to become some form of post renaissance neo City state rather like Venice with less canals but with a Doge installed. This was presented as such a done deal that George pre-empted calls for a referendum on the matter by saying that there would be no referendum on the matter. One could also consider this deal as more than done as the powers that be are obviously fully aware that we have a general election just around the corner and yet they’re not even prepared to allow the matter space on a ballot paper that will already be being printed.
So why the fait a compli and perhaps more importantly why is this being done with zero public consultation or indeed any referral to the people whatsoever? The simple answer is that following the Scottish referendum “NOT YET” vote the political establishment fully understand that the breaking up of the Union is an inescapable inevitability and they want the break up to be on their terms, what you might refer to as a controlled demolition. Following David Cameron’s rather odd dash to punch himself in the face the very next morning after the Scottish vote by strangely killing the Union by announcing “English votes for English laws” he fired the starting pistol for devolution right into his foot.
So where do we go from here and how do we escape the clutches of an establishment devolution model attempting to maintain as much of the status quo as possible with the illusion of more local powers?
In Greater Manchester people have been organising since very early December. Folk from the broadest church of political affiliations gathered in central Manchester to establish The Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign to demand that the people of Greater Manchester have a say on whether they want a Mayor or not. An online petition has been set up but more importantly, “pile in” petition signings have been organised in all of Greater Manchester’s 10 boroughs since early January. On Sunday 15th February GMRC members conducted a mass poll and survey of Sir Richard Leese’s Crumpsall constituency in North Manchester, Leese being one of the main architects of “Devo Manc” and the leader of Manchester City Council. It wasn’t surprising that the vast majority of Crumpsall citizens had no idea that “Devo Manc” was happening let alone the fact that they are soon to have a Mayor enforced upon them but perhaps what was surprising and somewhat heartening was that in answer to the question, “would you prefer a wider devolution incorporating the North West” the answer was an almost 80% YES.
Probably the most interesting development in this fast moving story is the arrangement of “Assemblies for Democracy” with one being held in Manchester Friends Meeting House 18th April. Momentum is fast growing for not only a rejection of “Devo Manc” but the securing of devolution on the peoples terms rather than the establishments. Another extremely interesting twist to this story are the contacts that are being made between North West advocates of a people lead devolution and Scottish independence groups and other devolution/independence groups from around the UK such as Yorkshire, Wales and Cornwall.
It is also interesting that the drive for regional devolution is becoming a common purpose at a variety of levels within society with groups as diverse as Campaign for the North, the CBI and grassroots organisations all pulling in a similar direction and when you combine this with the burgeoning independent media scene and citizen use of social media the future looks intriguing.
It is noteworthy that Paul Salveson is calling for a Northern assembly fed by assemblies from across the region which is no doubt urgently needed. Perhaps the bigger question is, should there not be a call for a UK wide assembly to settle this matter on a national basis and attempt to forge a new way for us all to live together on these islands? Doesn’t it just happen to be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta this June?
This article first appeared in The Chartist.